This recent article by Dexter Filkins for the New Yorker is attracting a fair amount of attention. It contains a few curious remarks, including the oft-repeated assertion that Assad’s days are numbered. (How is this known exactly, precisely in a time when the Assad offensive is proving succesful not merely in the North, but in the South as well?)
But overall the tenor of the article is that Syria is fairly irrevocably headed for disaster. Assad’s regime will fall, and subsequently the country will fall prey to devastating intra-Sunni civil war as well as the wholesale ethnic cleansing of Alawites from the northern coast. Furthermore, until his inevitable demise Assad’s use of chemical weapons will expand rapidly; should the U.S. wish to intervene to stop this, it will face insuperable difficulties, comprised both of the vast number of Syrian chemical stockpiles and the Syrian regime’s loss of motivation to in any way curtail their use (not to mention Jihadists taking control of the weapons before the U.S. can). As of now, Filkins maintains, the U.S. just doesn’t have any good way to stave off this impending Syrian catastrophe.
Which leads me to…wait for it… George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush is of course notorious for his abandonment of the Shi’ite revolt in Iraq following the Gulf War. Bush had himself repeatedly called for the Iraqi people to stand up to their belligerent dictator, which they did in March 1991. However, to the revolutionaries’ horror Bush ended up changing his mind on them. After the completion of Desert Storm, Bush decided not to destroy the Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait, allowing Saddam to employ them in the massacre tens of thousands of Shi’ites in southern Iraq. Americans in neighboring Kuwait stood by and did nothing.
Now here is the question: might Obama’s best option be to pull an H.W. on Syria’s rebels? Note that the apocalypse in Filkins’ article is predicated on Assad’s fall and the battle leading up to it. This scenario can be avoided. Of course Obama has himself repeatedly said that Assad must go. Of course Assad is dreadful and a mass-murderer of innocents. And of course the Syrian people deserve freedom and democracy (however dubiously inclined they are towards it). But if saving lives and avoiding catastrophe is the objective, maybe it is time for the U.S. to adopt the Russian perspective for a change (rather than expecting the Western view to prevail) and drop the demand for Assad to step down. Instead, the US could co-operate with Russia to mount a full-scale (possibly even military) campaign on both Assad and the rebels to immediately cease hostilities and maintain the status-quo for a period. This a sub-optimal solution if there ever was one, leaving Syria divided, overall, between a Sunni-controlled East and Assad-controlled West. But in the current situation, it may be the best option available. At least it would avoiding the ethnic cleansing, wholesale Jihadist take-over, and massive use of chemical weapons that Filkins worries about.